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BALTIMORE – Scott Zeger sat behind a table, breaking chocolate bars into pieces.

There were four varieties of the treat -- two from the U.S. and two from Britain -- and the Johns Hopkins University vice provost planned to use them in class to illustrate a point about clinical trials.

But while so-called active learning has long been acknowledged as a better way to engage students, activities like Zeger’s chocolate experiment remain the exception -- even at many top research universities and especially in entry-level science courses with high attrition rates.

At Johns Hopkins, more than 60 percent of incoming freshmen in 2006 indicated an interest in a STEM (science, technology, engineering or math) career. Of those students, 57 percent earned a degree in one of those fields.

While that attrition level isn't nearly as high as at some colleges, Hopkins leaders want it lower, especially given that their competitive admissions standards mean their students are generally capable of success in STEM fields. Much of the blame for those statistics falls on entry-level “weed-out” classes that are still usually taught in traditional lecture settings with minimal student interaction.

That realization sparked the Gateway Sciences Initiative, which encourages faculty research on student performance in introductory science courses and brought more than 300 people, mostly Johns Hopkins faculty members, to an all-day conference on the university’s Baltimore campus last Friday. At Hopkins, a top research university with nearly 5,000 undergraduates, such enthusiasm has often hard to come by in the past.

Steven David, the college’s vice dean for undergraduate education, said teaching biochemistry to 18-year-olds often takes a backseat to the research projects that “pay the bills” and build John Hopkins’ reputation. “If you’re a faculty member and you want to get tenure,” David said, “the incentive falls into reading and writing. That’s not going to change.”

But the fact that so many professors volunteered one of their last days of winter break to learn about how to reach undergraduates marks progress, David said, and suggests an openness to adopting new teaching techniques. The number of professors in attendance was more than triple the university’s original goal. “People are starting to talk about how they can be better undergraduate teachers,” David said. “This doesn’t happen all the time at Hopkins.”

That’s not to say Johns Hopkins isn’t doing anything right. The university works to place undergraduate students in labs early on, which research shows is key to keeping them in science, and a number of professors have already made significant changes to beginning science courses.

But most classes remain largely unchanged, and are perceived as “hurdles” instead of “launching pads,” Hopkins Provost Lloyd Minor said.

About half of Johns Hopkins undergrads take a gateway science course at some point, packing a lecture hall with enthusiasms ranging from passionate to uninterested and experience levels ranging from expert to inexperienced. No one disputes that these introductory classes are among the most difficult for a professor to teach, especially when they’re asked to abandon their trusty podiums and PowerPoint presentations.

Hopkins isn’t alone in re-emphasizing undergraduate education after a period when, as one speaker put it, many professors “stopped professing.” Next month, Harvard University will host a seminar on how technology can help reach a new generation of students who are younger than the World Wide Web.

As guest speakers from the Northeast told the Hopkins audience, using that technology can in many cases increase both efficiency and student interest.

But several speakers also critiqued the science “weed-out” classes. The courses are often graded on a curve and can encourage all but the best-prepared to leave science or, in some cases, drop out of college.

Hopkins’ idea isn’t to get rid of the classes, but to reform them in a way that allows more students to be successful and slows the flow of science majors to humanities majors. “As long as we have pre-med students, we’ll have organic chemistry,” David said. “The question is how to make it better.”

During a student panel, Hopkins professors asked their pupils what they needed from a lecture course. The aspiring scientists said personal interaction, genuine interest in the students and varied lesson plans are vital.

Many conference speakers suggested more group work and peer collaboration, but student panelists said that philosophy is at odds with the curved grading system some professors use that makes class members compete for a predetermined number of As and Bs.

One guest speaker, Harvard physics professor Eric Mazur, argued in favor of group collaboration. He’s used clicker technology, in which students electronically answer multiple-choice questions and then get real-time results, for 21 years.

Mazur said asking clicker questions and then having students discuss their answers promotes understanding far better than a traditional lecture. And he said it’s understanding, not exclusivity, that university programs should be pursuing.

More than 2,500 Hopkins courses already use clickers, and Clark Shah-Nelson sees an increased openness to using technology. Other introductory science professors spend class time working on computer problems or doing fieldwork instead of only requiring students to memorize facts and equations. Shah-Nelson, who helps incorporate technology into classes in the School of Public Health, said instructors are looking for better ways to reach students. Many professors say their research commitments don’t give them enough time to redesign their classes, but Shah-Nelson said specialists like him can relieve some of that burden.

Zeger, the vice provost who co-chaired the Gateway Sciences Initiative faculty committee and diced up the chocolate bars for his own class, hopes the daylong conference helped professors flesh out some good ideas. If used, he thinks long-term payoffs are possible both at Hopkins and elsewhere. 

“We would like to be among the leaders in the national conversation,” he said.

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